In many ways my paraglider is the best possible platform for airborne photography, as it provides me with an unrestricted 180-degree view in both horizontal and vertical directions, like a flying lawn chair. It's also relatively quiet in flight (it sounds like a moped), and it lets me fly low and slow over the land with a minimum of disturbance to the people and animals below. For takeoff, I don't need an airfield, only a small patch of open terrain slightly larger than a basketball court, with enough running room and no trees or power lines in front of me. While I can gain as much as 6,000 feet on a flight, I prefer to shoot at 100 to 500 feet above ground.
The aircraft consists of three components: the "wing" of the paraglider (similar to an acrobatic parachute), a 65-pound backpack-mounted motor, and a single-seat harness that ties it all together. The wing flies at only one speed, approximately 30 miles an hour. I steer with a combination of leaning and pulling on Kevlar brake lines attached to the paraglider's trailing edge. It's a lot of trouble to get off the ground, but in flight it's a beautiful thing. The whole contraption packs up into three large duffels, each of which travels as standard baggage on most commercial aircraft. I've paraglided on five continents and had my share of mishaps, like landing in the ocean while photographing whales in Mexico. Generally speaking, though, if I had used any other kind of aircraft for what I do, I probably wouldn't be alive today. I have a firm rule never to fly over terrain on which I can't make an emergency landing, such as large forests, big cities, volcanic rocks, or great expanses of water without a safety boat. My most common problem is a stumbled landing, followed by an inelegant headfirst sprawl onto the ground.
In the Sahara, my paraglider enabled me to discover areas that were unreachable any other way. Round pre-Islamic cemeteries were easy to spot from the air; Muslim burial grounds are oblong and point the faces of their deceased toward Mecca, like a compass needle. In Niger, I could see signs of ancient agriculture in an area that hadn't had sufficient rainfall for crops in thousands of years. On one visit, my Tuareg guide led us to a caravan of ten men and hundreds of camels, moving their ancient cargo of funnel-shaped blocks of edible salt on a trade route used for centuries by their ancestors. From above, they looked like a chain of army ants.